Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Try planting heirlooms this year

By R.D. Hohenfeldt
Managing Editor, Ozarks Almanac

You might consider growing some heirloom fruits, vegetables and flowers this year. These open-pollinated varieties allow you to save the seeds (if you want) and grow the same plants again next year, knowing you’ll get the same variety. That isn’t the case with a hybrid.

In the Ozarks, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds over at Mansfield offers one of the biggest selections of heirloom seeds in the country. Owner Jere published his first catalog in 1998 when he was a teenager. Since then, he has traveled to South America and the Orient to collect “new” seeds of old, sometimes ancient, varieties.

Gettle said interest in heirlooms has grown phenomenally each year. About 25 percent of his customers are market growers with garden plots of one-quarter to 5 acres. They grow the colorful and flavorful heirlooms because customers seek out the purity of the homegrown foods.

Heirloom melons and squash, because of their color, are particular attention grabbers at market booths.

He also noted that some of his customers are chefs in fine restaurants. They, too, are looking for intense flavor and heirlooms are the best place to find it.

Gettle recommended gardeners wanting to try heirlooms take a look at these varieties:

Chinese Mosaic Long Bean: This lavender bean from China grows 14-15 inches long. It looks good on the vine, and it makes a great stir fry dish.

Missouri Pink Love Apple: Yes, it’s a tomato. It’s a big pink fruit that is very rich tasting. Grown in Missouri since the Civil War, it was originally thought to be poisonous and used only as an ornamental in those days.

Purple Beauty Peppers: You can grow a prodigious number of beautiful bells on these compact bush plants. They have a crisp texture with a mild, sweet flavor.

Black Zebra: This tomato is a sport (or mutant variation) off the Green Zebra. It has beautiful flesh with a nice taste hinting of citrus and smoke. The skin is dark orange with deep green stripes.

Taiwan Black Long Bean: This bean literally grows a yard long (or longer). The light green pods have black beans. Yields are heavy.

White Wonder: This is a white-fleshed watermelon with beautiful flavor. The originated in Africa hundreds of years ago. The plants yield 30 to 8-pound round melons, perfect for your icebox. Gourmet growers love them. White watermelons were common in the United States in the 1800s but disappeared from seed catalogs over time. Henry Field dropped all white watermelons in the 1970s.

Carbon Tomatoes: They are deep dark purple, and won the 2005 Heirloom Garden Show best-tasting award. The fruit is smooth and large. “This is my personal favorite,” Gettle says. “It makes the best salsa.”

Gold Medal tomato: This is a striped, old German tomato. The 1-pound fruit is sweet and mild, great for eating fresh off the vine.

Siam Queen Thai basil: It’s a strong, clove-scented basil, a must for curry and all Thai cooking. The flowers are beautiful.

Black Futsu: This is a black, Japanese squash that is flat, round and ribbed. It turns a rich chestnut in storage. The flesh is golden and has a rich, hazelnut-like taste. These squash are 3-8 pounds each.

Galeux d’Eysines: This French squash is both ornamental and tasty. It has a warty skin that is salmon or peach-colored. The flesh is orange and unusually sweet and smooth, not stringy. Good for soups or baking, it is not a good keeper.

Thai Green Cucumber: Sometimes called Siam Best, it is popular in Thailand, growing 7 inches long and two inches wide. It’s medium green and hard to find.

Thai Green Pea Egg Plant: This is eggplant the size of peas. The plant grows 7 feet tall, but the growing season is so long that you might have difficulty with it in the Ozarks.

Amaranth: This is actually a cereal grain that has beautiful flower heads that are great for ornamentation. The bright green leaves are also tasty, sometimes cooked as greens, sometimes used in salad blends. A number of heirloom varieties are available, such as Thai Round Leaf and Love Lies Bleeding (red and green versions) and Garnet Red.

Gettle recommends growing colorful produce, because medical experts say colorful vegetables are good for your health. For market growers, colorful vegetables also attract the attention of consumers.

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